By Carolyn Lang. This is not a piece about DIY/DIT music in DC. It is a piece about the growing visual art scene in DC.
Sometimes the culture of DC can feel like one of ingestion— the politics and the established institutions, the rising housing prices, the general inertia of the epicenter of political power of the Western world can make its citizens feel like passive recipients. Beneath the behemoth cultural importers of the Smithsonians, the Hirshorn and the National Portrait Gallery, however, a community of collaborative and resourceful artists are redefining DC’s cultural landscape.
It has never been a better time to be young and creative in the district, as a kinetic art scene comprised of collectives and community-focused art is simmering with a building momentum and a magnetic authenticity. “DC has an underground pulse, a community of young and passionate artists who just need a bigger platform for expression,” said Alana Ramo of The Intentional, a DC-based quarterly literary magazine.
This high amount of energy is resulting in an increasingly vibrant local art scene that is fertile for innovation and expansion. DC is becoming home to a rapidly increasing number of art collectives incubated by venues and programmers including Hierarchy in Adams Morgan, Pleasant Plains Workshop in Pleasant Plains, Transformer on 14th and P streets NW, Hole in the Sky Collective, Union Arts DC, The Median in Brightwood, 2B Artist Studios in NoMa, The Fridge DC in Eastern Market, doris-mae at 14th and U streets NW, Open Studio DC, and Catalyst Projects (formerly in Brookland, now continuing programming without a physical space). Delicious Spectacle, Sleepwalking Cult, DDAY Collective, and Boys Be Good are all emerging artistic collectives that call DC home.
All but two of the venues and collectives have opened in their current iterations in the last five years.
Sometimes the venue and the art community within it are synonymous, with the collective or artists using the space as a home base and primary residence. Sometimes the venues host a revolving door of independent talent.
Many of these venues and spaces are in separate rooms of actual residences and apartments, deepening the communal emphasis of the movement. The tenants and owners are often artists themselves, and have chosen to open their homes to emergent artists.
There is often a familial seamlessness between the artists and an ingrained sense of devotion to the neighborhood they inhabit.
Kristina Bilonick, founder and resident artist of Pleasant Plains workshop, said that she chose to use the name of the neighborhood in the title of the workshop to promote awareness of the neighborhood itself.
“It seemed important to include the place in the name because one of the first things we learned is that there’s a strong sense of community here among the residents and the business owners,” said Bilonick. Pleasant Plains Workshop is currently home to seven additional artists. “’Workshop’ comes from the idea that there would be all sorts of things going on here: classes, talks, exhibitions, experiments.”
In late 2013, alice wonder, a multidisciplinary artist with DDAY Collective, decided to start using her house as a venue for art shows and book releases as she grew frustrated with the exorbitant price of traditional gallery space that emergent artists can’t realistically afford.
“We decided to start our collective because we did not want to wait for permission from traditional gatekeepers and gallery spaces in order to bring our mission to fruition,” said Danielle Scruggs, a photographer with DDAY Collective.
DDAY Collective put on their first show, Countenance, in November 2013 at the Median, the name bestowed upon the gallery space in the Brightwood home.
“There’s going to be a tipping point where the major galleries and spaces will have to pay attention; pay attention to what’s happening outside their space,” said wonder.
Perhaps one of the most iconic bastions of collective culture and local civic engagement in DC is LaMont St. Collective in Mt. Pleasant. The house has been a realization of the salon and communal ideal for nearly 40 years. The house holds a twice-yearly art fair, the Salon de Libertad, a celebration of art and community in the district that has become a manifestation of the resilience of a stalwart DC cultural entity.
DC is geographically small and there is no reason for the different spheres of creative talent to remain separate. While local arts projects tend to garner inertia through word of mouth and shared connections, without cultural curators to bring them to the calendars of art enthusiasts they may never get the exposure they deserve.
The different groups of friends and artists comprising the art hubs in the district are being brought together increasingly by cultural directors, social media, and programming that is laying the foundation for an art circuit that is inclusive and interconnected. The distinctive niches and styles make for an incredible diversity of artistic expression, and the constellations of talent are hungry for increased exchange and support.
“For a long time we had been hearing from area artists that no one seems to know that DC has an active arts community,” Zofie Lang, artist and co-founder of Catalyst Projects said.
Victoria Reis of Transformer gallery agreed. “In 2002, there was no consistent program in DC for emerging artists to exhibit, to build audience, to really engage with their peer artists or others in the community.”
For the past 12 years, Transformer has embodied a fluid approach to their mission of creative convergence that is responsive to the needs of emerging artists by partnering with local artists, curators, educational, and cultural institutions to foster collaborations and promote visibility through growing patronage.
The sentiment of isolation amongst artists is rapidly fading.
The Intentional, both a print literary magazine and a rising cultural director, has recently taken on a leading role in DC’s young artistic zeitgeist through monthly D(C)IY events to give exposure to DIY and collective spaces.
“The DIY culture embodies who we are- a generation of self-starters, determined not to sit by the wayside when we realize we can’t have what we want…this is a group that knows what they want, haven’t been able to find it and so are building it themselves,” said The Intentional’s Ramo.
The Intentional is taking up a mantle established by Phillipa Hughes Pink Line Project, a fixture of the DC art world since 2006 and a catalyst in helping to establish a methodic communication to reveal the worlds of art and culture in DC to her expansive network. The Pink Line Project is now a thoughtfully curated email detailing different opportunities for social interaction and lesser-known artistic endeavors in the district.
Annual and singular art-oriented events including Submerge DC, Art all Night, (e)merge Art Fair, LUMEN8Anacostia, Art in the Mix and the Salon de Libertad are allowing artists the opportunity to connect and to engage in a celebratory atmosphere that situates the artistic enclaves into the neighborhoods in which they developed.
The events also provide valuable opportunities for artists to collaborate: Zofie Lang and Gail Vollrath of Catalyst Projects met at Artomatic, and credit the 2012 month-long event as being a nexus in the art world.
The momentum of the arts’ pivot toward collective and community projects is being propelled further by creative outreach and lifestyle companies No Kings Collective and Raise Your City, organizing forces behind some of the most creative productions in the city that are able to assist creative projects from inception to completion.
The spirit of DIY in DC transcends the physical spaces and the categorical identification of its actors.
“‘DIY’ is not just financial or about the physical space. It is about being responsible for your vision and for other artists’ vision as well and getting it out there,” said Gail Vollrath of Catalyst Projects. “There’s strength in numbers; as a DIY collective we’re all trying to build a strong base,” agreed David Ibata, an artist with DDAY Collective.
The artists and cultural curators involved in this moment embody this sentiment: If you don’t like the status quo, build a world you want to live in. The DIY movement in art is about more than just displaying the art itself, but about starting a dialogue in which artistic and cultural literacy will grow and empower the communities in which it flourishes. The spaces and homes that are rearranging the DC art scene are often also used as areas for salon-style discussions on issues relevant to all home-grown and transplant Washingtonians, book releases, parties, and convergence points for curious art and community enthusiasts.
People often use the term “new DC” to describe the re-landscaping of the District for new inhabitants and new agendas. It’s becoming evident that along with the rise of the new DC will be a nuanced and rich cultural landscape of exchange in art and ideas, and an ethos of communal collaboration that will elevate the dialogue.
“Artists are natural activists,” Vollrath said. “They are chroniclers of their times. Your time informs the artwork you produce, and you turn that into something you present to your community. Artists use the tools they have to get a message out.” The DIY and collective culture has deep roots in DC’s history, and the local arts scene’s restless and invigorated current incarnation is setting the stage for a more magnetic and effusive culture than ever before.